Arts program for Syrian refugees in Surrey, B.C. is music to their ears

December 23, 2016

By Marsha Lederman, Vancouver Sun |

When embattled Aleppo is under evacuation and it’s unclear what has happened to your family there, it could seem trivial to be answering questions about a recent concert experience in Vancouver. And yet the group gathered at the Surrey School District’s English Language Learner Welcome Centre beams at the memory still.

“This is the first time in our life to see something like that; I was dreaming to see a place like that in my life,” Zina Moustafa says of her experience seeing the Vancouver Bach Family of Choirs at the Orpheum this month. “It was a dream and now it came true,” she continues, speaking through interpreter Izabeil Philips.

That Sunday afternoon, 61 people who use the Welcome Centre travelled to Vancouver for Christmas with the Bach Choir. The outing was funded through the Canada Council for the Arts’ Welcome to the Arts program. The pilot initiative, announced earlier this year, invited arts organizations to apply for funding to offer tickets to refugees. The Welcome Centre connected with the Vancouver Bach Choir as well as The Arts Club Theatre, which provided more than 30 tickets to its current production of Mary Poppins. “I wonder what goes through their head when they go to a performance,” says Natasha Klein, the Arts Club’s director of education. “We know we’re going to go to the theatre and be entertained. We take it for granted. But these families – they don’t know what to expect.”

The refugees knew nothing about Mary Poppins – they hadn’t seen the movie or heard the music – and it was an evening performance with a long trip back to Surrey afterward. So Ms. Philips and her colleague, Irina Ahmad, settlement workers who organized the outings, figured some families – especially those with young children – might bail at intermission.

They did not. Rather, they were reluctant to leave. Afterward, the kids stood on the sidewalk, dancing and giving the show’s songs a whirl in their newly acquired new language. “They were even trying to sing Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” Ms. Ahmad reports.

At the Orpheum, for many of the young people, it was their first time at a live concert. They were struck not just by the music, but by the setting – snapping photos of the stage, the ceiling, everything around them.

“Even when they went to the washroom, it was like, ‘Wow,’” Ms. Ahmad says.

She adds that they were amazed to see children participating. “Oh, children on the stage? Maybe I can be an actor.”

Ms. Moustafa’s son, Wahid Yousef, 13, may have fallen asleep toward the end, but he loved the concert and would like to see more.

“I like everything – the songs, the place, the people,” adds his 15-year-old sister, Riham, with Ms. Philips translating. “I like the songs so much, the Christmas songs.”

The family, originally from Aleppo, is Kurdish – and thus targets. They had moved to Damascus for work, but when the war started, they returned to Afrin, north of Aleppo, then to Erbil, Iraq, then to Beirut. They arrived in Canada last January, under a private sponsorship. In Syria, they had a large, three-bedroom home and owned a supermarket. In Surrey, the family of six lives in a cramped two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment. Ms. Moustafa works nights as an office cleaner in Burnaby. Sometimes the older kids come along to help.

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